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The ancient Hawaiians, who took much of their daily sustenance from the ocean, also enjoyed playing in the water. In fact, surfing was the sport of kings. Though it's easy to be lulled into whiling away the day baking in the sun on a white-, gold-, black-, or green-sand beach, getting into or onto the water is a highlight of most trips.
All of the Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, making them some of the world's greatest natural playgrounds. But certain experiences are even better on the Big Island: nighttime scuba diving trips to see manta rays; deep-sea fishing in Kona's fabled waters, where dozens of Pacific blue marlin of 1,000 pounds or more have been caught; and kayaking among the dolphins in Kealakekua Bay, to name a few.
From any point on the Big Island, the ocean is nearby. From body boarding and snorkeling to kayaking and surfing, there is a water sport for everyone. For most activities, you can rent gear and go it alone or with a group excursion with an experienced guide, who can offer security as well as special insights into Hawaiian marine life and culture. Want to try surfing? You can take lessons that promise to have you standing the first day out.
The Kona and Kohala coasts of West Hawaii boast the largest number of ocean sports outfitters and tour operators. They operate from the small-boat harbors and piers in Kailua-Kona, Keauhou, Kawaihae, and at the Kohala Coast resorts. There are also several outfitters in the East Hawaii and Hilo areas.
As a general rule, the waves are gentler here than on the other Islands, but there are a few things to be aware of. First, don't turn your back on the ocean. It's unlikely, but if conditions are right, a wave could come along and push you face-first into the sand or drag you out to sea. Second, when the Big Island does experience high surf, dangerous conditions prevail and can change rapidly. Watch the ocean for a few minutes before going out. Third, realize that ultimately you must keep yourself safe. We strongly encourage you to obey lifeguards and heed the advice of outfitters from whom you rent equipment. It could save your trip, or even your life.
Lava Ocean Adventures. The best lava boat operator on the island, Captain Shane Turpin takes the 24-passenger Lava Kai near lava flows spilling out of Kilauea's southeast vent. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see molten earth hitting the sea in Mother Nature's most thrilling show. Tours are volcano dependent and leave from Pohoiki Boat Ramp at 5:30 am. Pohoiki, HI. 808/966–4200. www.seelava.com. $150.
According to the movies, in the Old West there was always friction between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers. A somewhat similar situation exists between surfers and body boarders (and between surfers and stand-up paddleboarders). That's why they generally keep to their own separate areas. Often the body boarders, who lie on their stomachs on shorter boards, stay closer to shore and leave the outside breaks to the board surfers. Or the board surfers may stick to one side of the beach and the body boarders to the other. The truth is, body boarding (often called "boogie boarding," in homage to the first commercial manufacturer of this slick, little, flexible-foam board) is a blast. Most surfers also sometimes carve waves on a body board, no matter how much of a purist they claim to be. Novice body boarders should catch shore-break waves only. Ask lifeguards or locals for the best spots. You'll need a pair of short fins to get out to the bigger waves offshore (not recommended for newbies). As for bodysurfing, just catch a wave and make like Superman going faster than a speeding bullet.
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area. Often considered one of the top 10 beaches in the world, Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area offers fine white sand, turquoise water, and easy rolling surf on most days, making it great for bodysurfing and body boarding at all levels. Ask the lifeguards—who only cover areas south of the rocky cliff that juts out near the middle of the beach—about conditions before heading into the water, especially in winter. Sometimes northwest swells create a dangerous undertow. Parking costs $5. Hwy. 19, near mile marker 69, just south of Mauna Kea Hotel, Kohala Coast www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii/hapuna.cfm.
Honolii Cove. North of Hilo, this is the best body boarding spot on the east side of the island. Off Hwy. 19, near mile marker 4, Hilo.
Magic Sands Beach Park (White Sands Beach. This white-sand, shore-break cove is great for beginning to intermediate bodysurfing and body boarding. Sometimes in winter, much of the sand here washes out to sea and forms a sandbar just offshore, creating fun wave conditions. Also known as White Sands, it's popular and can get crowded with locals, especially when school is out. Watch for nasty rip currents at high tide. If you're not using fins, wear reef shoes for protection against sharp rocks. Alii Dr., just north of mile marker 4, Kailua-Kona.
Equipment-rental shacks are located at many beaches and boat harbors, along the highway, and at most resorts. Body board rental rates are around $12–$15 per day and around $60 per week. Ask the vendor to throw in a pair of fins—some will for no extra charge.
Orchid Land Surf Shop. This shop has a wide variety of surf and other water sports equipment for sale or rent. It stocks professional custom surfboards, body boards, and surf apparel, and also does repairs. You can rent a body board for $12 a day, a surfboard for $20 a day. 262 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/935–1533. www.orchidlandsurf.com.
Pacific Vibrations. This family-owned surf shop—in business 35 years—holds the distinction of being the oldest, smallest surf shop in the world. Even at a compact 400 square feet, this place stocks tons of equipment, surf wear, surf gear, and GoPro cameras. You can rent a surfboard (under $20), stand-up paddleboard, or body board—$5 a day but you have to buy or bring your own fins. Right in the heart of downtown Kailua Town, it's worth a stop for the authentic Hawaii surf vibe. 75-5702 Likana La. #B, at Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–4140.
The Kona Coast has some of the world's most exciting "blue-water" fishing. Although July, August, and September are peak months, with the best fishing and a number of tournaments, charter fishing goes on year-round. You don't have to compete to experience the thrill of landing a Pacific blue marlin or other big-game fish. Some 60 charter boats, averaging 26 to 58 feet, are available for hire, all of them out of Honokohau Harbor, north of Kailua-Kona.
Kona waters have the reputation of producing large marlin, mostly the Pacific blue variety. According to records, 63 marlin weighing 1,000 pounds or more have been caught off the Kona Coast, which has come to be known as "Grander Alley," a reference to the number of big fish that inhabit its waters. The largest "grander" ever, caught in 1984, weighed in at 1,649 pounds.
For an exclusive charter, prices generally range from $600 to $950 for a half-day trip (about four hours) and $800 to $1,600 for a full day at sea (about eight hours). For share charters, rates are about $100 to $140 per person for a half day and $200 for a full day. If fuel prices increase, expect charter costs to rise. Most boats are licensed to take up to six passengers, in addition to the crew. Tackle, bait, and ice are furnished, but you usually have to bring your own lunch. You won't be able to keep your catch, although if you ask, many captains will send you home with a few fillets.
Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament. Pacific blue marlin are sought after by deep-sea anglers the world over, who come to Kona's fabled waters, most notably during this five-day tournament in August. Since 1959, this granddaddy of big-game-fishing tourneys has attracted super-competitive teams in the finest boats imaginable. The powerful animals are caught or tagged and released. Occasionally, Kona waters produce a grander—over 1,000 pounds. 808/836–3422. www.hibtfishing.com.
Honokohau Harbor's Fuel Dock. Show up around 11:30 am and watch the weigh-in of the day's catch from the morning charters, or around 3:30 pm for the afternoon charters. Weigh-ins are fun when the big ones come in, but it's not a sure thing. On Kona's Waterfront Row, look for the "Grander's Wall" of anglers with their 1,000-pound-plus prizes. Honokohau Harbor, Kealakehe Pkwy. at Hwy. 11, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Before you sign up with anyone, think about the kind of trip you want. Looking for a romantic cruise? A rockin' good time with your buddies? Serious fishing in one of the "secret spots?" A family-friendly excursion? Be sure to describe your expectations so a booking agent can match you with a captain and a boat that suit your style.
Bwana Sportfishing. Full-, half-, quarter-, three-quarter-day, and overnight charters are available on the 46-foot Bwana. The boat features the latest electronics, top-of-the-line equipment, and air-conditioned cabins. Captain Teddy comes from a fishing family; father Peter is retired but still affiliated with the Kona Charter Skippers Association. Honokohau Harbor, Slip H-17, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., just south of Kona airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/936–5168. www.teddyhoogs.com. From $1,250.
The Charter Desk at Honokohau Harbor. With about 60 boats on the books, this place can take care of almost anyone. You can make arrangements through hotel activity desks, but it's better to go directly to the desk at the harbor and look things over for yourself. Honokohau Harbor Fuel Dock, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–5735 or 888/566–2487. www.charterdesk.com.
Charter Locker. This company offers half- and full-day charter fishing trips on 30- to 52-foot vessels. The luxurious Blue Hawaii has air-conditioned staterooms for overnight trips. Rates depend on the boat. Honokohau Harbor #16, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., just south of Kona airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/326–2553. www.charterlocker.com.
Humdinger Sportfishing. This game fisher guide has more than three decades of fishing experience in Kona waters, and the expert crew are marlin specialists. The 37-foot Humdinger has the latest in electronics and top-line rods and reels. Honokohau Harbor, Slip B-4, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/936–3034 or 800/926–2374. www.humdingersportfishing.com. From $600.
Illusions Sportfishing. Captain Tim Hicks is one of Kona's top fishing-tourney producers, with 20 years of experience. The 39-foot Illusions is fully equipped with galley, restrooms, an air-conditioned cabin, plus the latest in fishing equipment. Honokohau Harbor, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., just south of Kona airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/960–7371. www.illusionssportfishing.com. From $550.
Kona Charter Skippers Association. In business since 1956, this company can help arrange half-day and full-day exclusive or share charters on several boats. Captain Pete is an old salt with plenty of Kona sea stories. The Bwana is the featured boat. Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/936–5168.
The leeward west coast areas of the Big Island are protected for the most part from the northeast trade winds, making for ideal, near-shore kayaking conditions. There are miles and miles of uncrowded Kona and Kohala coastline to explore, presenting close-up views of stark, raw, lava-rock shores and cliffs; lava-tube sea caves; pristine, secluded coves; and deserted beaches.
Ocean kayakers can get close to shore—where the commercial snorkel and dive cruise boats can't reach. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for adventure, such as near-shore snorkeling among the expansive coral reefs and lava rock formations that teem with colorful tropical fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles. You can pull ashore at a quiet cove for a picnic and a plunge into turquoise waters. With a good coastal map and some advice from the kayak vendor, you might paddle by ancient battlegrounds, burial sites, bathing ponds for Hawaiian royalty, or old villages.
Kayaking can be enjoyed via a guided tour or on a self-guided paddling excursion. Either way, the kayak outfitter can brief you on recommended routes, safety, and how to help preserve and protect Hawaii's ocean resources and coral reef system.
Whether you're a beginning or experienced kayaker, choose appropriate location and conditions for your excursion.
Ask the outfitter about local conditions and hazards, such as tides, currents, and advisories.
Beginners should practice getting into and out of the kayak and capsizing (called a huli, the Hawaiian word for "flip") in shallow water.
Before departing, secure the kayak's hatches to prevent water intake.
Use a line to attach the paddle to the kayak to avoid losing it.
Always use a life vest or jacket, and wear a rash guard and plenty of sunblock.
Carry appropriate amounts of water and food.
Don't kayak alone. Create a float plan; tell someone where you're going and when you will return.
Hilo Bay. This is a favorite kayak spot. The best place to put in is at Reeds Bay Beach Park. Parking is plentiful and free at the bayfront. Most afternoons you'll share the bay with local paddling clubs. Stay inside the breakwater unless the ocean is calm (or you're feeling unusually adventurous). Conditions range from extremely calm to quite choppy. Banyan Way and Banyan Dr., 1 mile from downtown Hilo.
Kailua Bay and Kamakahonu Beach. The small, sandy beach that fronts the Courtyard King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel is a nice place to rent or launch kayaks. You can unload in the cul-de-sac and park in nearby free lots. The water here is especially calm and the surroundings are historic and scenic. Alii Dr., next to Kailua Pier, Kailua-Kona.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. The excellent snorkeling and likelihood of seeing dolphins (morning is best) make Kealakekua Bay one of the most popular kayaking spots on the Big Island. An ocean conservation district, the bay is usually calm and tranquil. (Use caution and common sense during surf advisories.) Tall coral pinnacles and clear visibility surrounding the monument also make for stupendous snorkeling. Because of new regulations, only a few operators have permits to lead kayak tours in the park. Napoopoo Rd and Manini Bch. Rd., Captain Cook www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii.
Oneo Bay. Right downtown, this is usually a placid place to kayak. It's fairly easy to get to. If you can't find parking along the road, there's a free lot across the street from the library and farmers’ market. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
There are several rental outfitters on Highway 11 between Kainaliu and Captain Cook, but only a few are specially permitted to lead kayak trips in Kealakekua Bay.
Aloha Kayak Co.. This outfitter is one of the few that is permitted to guide tours to the stunningly beautiful Kealakekua Bay, leaving from Napoopoo, including about 1½ hours at the Captain Cook Monument. The 3½-hour morning and afternoon tours ($99) include snacks and drinks. Local guides tell about the area's cultural, historical, and natural significance. You may see dolphins, but you must watch them from a distance only, as this is a protected marine reserve. Keauhou Bay tours are also offered: a four-hour morning tour for $89, a 2½-hour afternoon version for $69, and a two-hour evening manta ray tour, $89. Kayak rentals are $35 for a single, $60 for a double, and $85 for a triple. Stand-up paddleboard lessons at Keauhou Bay cost $75. 79-7248 Mamalahoa Hwy., across from Teshima's Restaurant, Honalo, HI, 96750. 808/322–2868 or 877/322–1444. www.alohakayak.com.
Aloha Living Services. Island-born Jonathon Ditto specializes in kayaking on the Kohala Coast, including Puako, and in teaching respectful, eco-friendly symbiosis with this pristine area. Private guided tours are available, and he also rents kayaks, boogie boards, stand-up paddleboards, snorkel gear, and road and mountain bikes. Free delivery. 61-3636 Kawaihae Rd., Waimea, HI, 96743. 808/430–0991. www.alohalivingservices.com. Rentals from $25.
Kona Boys. On the highway above Kealakekua Bay, this full-service, environmentally conscious outfitter handles kayaks, body boards, surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkeling gear. Single-seat a double kayaks are offered. Surfing and stand-up paddling lessons are available for private or group instruction. Tours such as their Morning Magic and Midday Meander include two half-day guided kayaking and snorkeling trips with gear, lunch, snacks, and beverages. Kona Boys also run a beach shack fronting the King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel and are happy to give advice on the changing regulations regarding South Kona bay usage. The town location offers Hawaiian outrigger canoe rides, SUP lessons, and rentals of beach mats, chairs, and other gear. 79-7539 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua, HI, 96750. 808/328–1234 or 808/329–2345. www.konaboys.com. Tours from $99; kayaks from $47; surf/paddle lessons from $75. 75–5660 Palani Rd., Kailua-Kona, 96740.
Ocean Safari's Kayak Adventures. On the guided 3½-hour morning sea-cave tour that begins in Keauhou Bay, you can visit lava-tube sea caves along the coast, then swim ashore for a snack. The kayaks will already be on the beach, so you won't have to hassle with transporting them. The cost is $68.50 per person. A two-hour, dolphin-spotting tour costs $35 per person. Kayak daily rental rates are $25 for singles and $40 for doubles. Stand-up boards are $25 for two hours. If you want a lesson, it's $60 including the board (two-person minimum). End of Kamehameha III Rd., next to Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/326–4699. www.oceansafariskayaks.com.
Pineapple Park. Affiliated with a hostel with locations in Hilo, Kona, and Mountain View, Pineapple Park's Kealakekua location rents kayaks for $50 for a single and $65 for a double. The rental price includes paddles, life jackets, bags to keep all your gear dry, and harnesses to strap the kayak to your car. 81-6363 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua, HI, 96750. 808/323–2224 or 877/800–3800. www.pineapple-park.com.
For old salts and novice sailors alike, there's nothing like a cruise on the Kona or Kohala Coast. Calm waters, serene shores, and the superb scenery of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai, the Big Island's primary volcanic peaks, make for a great sailing adventure. You can drop a line over the side and try your luck at catching dinner, or grab some snorkel gear and explore when the boat drops anchor in one of the quiet coves and bays. A cruise may well be the most relaxing and adventurous part of a Big Island visit.
Maile Charters. Private sailing charters for two to 16 passengers are available on the Maile, a 50-foot GulfStar sloop. You choose the itinerary, whether it's watching for dolphins and whales, snorkeling around coral reefs, or enjoying appetizers as the sun sinks below the horizon. Morning snorkels, sunset sails, and overnight trips are offered. Snorkeling equipment is provided, and food can be catered. Kawaihae Harbor, Hwy. 270, on the dock, Kawaihae, HI, 96743. 808/960–9744. www.adventuresailing.com. From $997.
The Big Island's underwater world is the setting for a dramatic diving experience. With generally warm and calm waters, vibrant coral reefs and rock formations, and plunging underwater drop-offs, the Kona and Kohala coasts offer some premier scuba diving. There are also some good dive locations in East Hawaii, not far from the Hilo area. Divers find much to occupy their time, including marine reserves teeming with tropical reef fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, an occasional and critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and even some playful spinner dolphins. On special night dives to see manta rays, divers descend with bright underwater lights that attract plankton, which in turn attract these otherworldly creatures. The best spots to dive are all on the west coast.
Garden Eel Cove. Only accessible by boat, this is a great place to see manta rays somersaulting overhead as they feast on a plankton supper. It's also home to hundreds of tiny garden eels darting out from their sandy homes. There's a steep drop-off and lots of marine life. Rte. 19, near Kona airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Manta Village. Booking with a night-dive operator is required for the short boat ride to this area, one of Kona's best night-dive spots. If you're a diving or snorkeling fanatic, it's well worth it to experience manta rays drawn by the lights of the hotel. If night swimming isn't your cup of tea, you can catch a glimpse of the majestic creatures from the Sheraton's deck. 78-128 Ehukai St., off Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Pawai Bay Marine Preserve. Clear waters, abundant reef life, and interesting coral formations make Pawai Bay Marine Preserve ideal for diving. Explore sea caves, arches, and rock formations. Located one half mile north of Old Airport, it can be busy with snorkel boats, but is an easy dive spot. Kuakini Hwy., north of Old Kona Airport Park, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Puako. Just south of Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, beautiful Puako offers easy entry to some fine reef diving. Deep chasms, sea caves, and rock arches abound with varied marine life. Puako Rd., off Hwy. 19, Kohala Coast, HI, 96743.
Manta rays, one of Hawaii's most fascinating marine-life species, can be seen on some nighttime diving excursions along the Kona and Kohala coasts. They are generally completely harmless to divers, though of course no wild animal is totally predictable. If you don't want to get wet, head to the beach fronting the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast, or to the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, where each evening, visitors gather by the hotel’s lights to watch manta rays feed in the shallows.
The manta ray (Manta birostris), called the devil fish by some, is known as hahalua by Hawaiians.
Its winglike fins, reaching up to 20 feet wide, allow the ray to skim through the water like a bird gliding through air.
The manta ray uses the two large flap-like lobes extending from its eyes to funnel food to its mouth. It eats microscopic plankton, small fish, and tiny crustaceans.
Closely related to the shark, the manta can weigh more than 3,000 pounds.
Its skeleton is made of cartilage, not bone.
A female ray gives birth to one or two young at a time; pups can be 45 inches long and weigh 20 pounds at birth.
There are quite a few good dive shops along the Kona Coast. Most are happy to take on all customers, but a few focus on specific types of trips. Trip prices vary, depending on whether you're already certified and whether you're diving from a boat or from shore. Instruction with PADI, SDI, or TDI certification in three to five days costs $600 to $850. Most instructors rent dive equipment and snorkel gear, as well as underwater cameras. Most organize otherworldly manta ray dives at night and whale-watching cruises in season.
Jack's Diving Locker. Good for novice and intermediate divers, Jack's has trained and certified tens of thousands of divers since 1981, with classrooms and a dive pool for instruction. Four boats that accommodate 10 to 24 divers (boats at capacity can feel cramped) visit more than 80 established dive sites along the Kona coast, yielding sightings of turtles, manta rays, garden eels, and schools of barracuda. Snorkelers can choose from morning trips and manta night trips, and dolphin-watch and reef snorkels. Combined sunset/night manta ray dives are offered as well. Kona's best deal for scuba newbies is Jack's two-part introductory dive from Kailua Pier: pool instruction plus a one-tank beach dive, or a two-tank boat dive is offered as well. 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–7585 or 800/345–4807. www.jacksdivinglocker.com. Snorkel trips from $65.
Kohala Divers. The Kohala Coast's lava-tube caves, vibrant coral reefs, and interesting sealife make it a great diving destination. This full-service PADI dive shop has been certifying divers since 1984. A one-day intro dive course has you in the ocean the same day. A four-day, full certification course is offered, too. The company also rents equipment and takes divers to the best diving spots. Kawaihae Harbor Shopping Center, Hwy. 270, Kawaihae, HI, 96743. 808/882–7774. www.kohaladivers.com. One-day dive course, $175; four-day certification $650; two-tank dive $139 plus $35 for gear; snorkel rentals $35 per week.
Nautilus Dive Center. Across from Hilo Bay, Nautilus Dive Center is the oldest and most experienced dive shop on the island. It offers a broad range of services for both beginners and experienced divers. Owner Bill De Rooy has been diving around the Big Island for 30 years, and can provide you with underwater maps and show you the best dive spots in Hilo. He also provides PADI instruction and likes to repair gear. 382 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/935–6939. www.nautilusdivehilo.com. Dive-equipment rentals from $35 per day.
Ocean Eco Tours and Harbor Dive Center. This eco-friendly outfitter is eager to share a wealth of ocean knowledge with beginners and advanced divers alike. Six to 10 divers and snorkelers head out on one of two 30-foot crafts, and the day's destination—from among 80 sites, both north and south, that feature good reefs and other prime underwater spots—varies based on ocean conditions. Four-hour daytime dives or a nighttime dives to swim with manta rays are offered. PADI open-water certification can be completed in three or four days. Seasonal whale-watch tours are also offered. Ride-alongs are welcome on all charters. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/324–7873 or 808/331–2121. www.oceanecotours.com. Excursions from $129; PADI open-water certification $650; whale-watch tours $95.
Shan's Scuba. For a personalized scuba-certification experience, certified PADI MSDT instructor Shannon Rhodes offers complete certification. Specializing in small groups, she's particularly good with those who feel intimidated about learning to dive. If you plan ahead, you can learn online with PADI before arrival, and Shannon will certify you in the water for a discounted price. Captain Cook, HI, 96704. 985/515–5990. Certification $400 ($300 with pre-online course).
Torpedo Tours. Owner-operators Mike and Nikki Milligan, both dive instructors, love to take divers out on their 40-foot custom dive boat, the Na Pali Kai II. They specialize in small groups, which means you'll get personalized attention and spend more time diving and less time waiting to dive. Morning excursions feature two-tank dives. Both snorkelers and divers can try the torpedo scooters—devices that let you cover more area with less kicking. Manta ray night diving and snorkeling at Garden Eel Cove are offered. This is the only company that fishes between dives. Scout, the dive dog, loves to swim with the sea life. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/938–0405. www.torpedotours.com. Dives from $119; snorkeling from $85; torpedo scooters $30.
A favorite pastime on the Big Island, snorkeling is perhaps one of the easiest and most enjoyable water activities for visitors. By floating on the surface, peering through your mask, and breathing through your snorkel, you can see lava rock formations, sea arches, sea caves, and coral reefs teeming with colorful tropical fish. While the Kona and Kohala coasts boast more beaches, bays, and quiet coves to snorkel, the east side around Hilo and at Kapoho are also great places to get in the water.
If you don't bring your own equipment, you can easily rent all the gear needed from a beach activities vendor, who will happily provide directions to the best sites for snorkeling in the area. For access to deeper water and assistance from an experienced crew, you can opt for a snorkel cruise. Excursions generally range from two to five hours; be sure you know what equipment and food is included.
Kahaluu Beach Park. Since ancient times, the waters around Kahaluu Beach have provided traditional throw net–fishing grounds. With super-easy access, the bay offers good swimming and outstanding snorkeling, revealing turtles, angelfish, parrot fish, needlefish, puffer fish, and many types of tang. Stay inside the breakwater and don't stray too far, as dangerous and unpredictable currents swirl outside the bay. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Kapoho Tide Pools. Here you'll find the best snorkeling on the Hilo side. Fingers of lava from the 1960 flow that destroyed the town of Kapoho jut into the sea to form a network of tide pools. Conditions near the shore are excellent for beginners, while farther out is challenging enough for experienced snorkelers. End of Kapoho-Kai Rd., off Hwy. 137, Hilo.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. This protected Marine Life Conservation District is hands-down one of the best snorkeling spots on the island, thanks to clear visibility, fabulous coral reefs, and generally calm waters. Pods of dolphins can be abundant, but they're protected under federal law and may not be disturbed or approached. Access to the area has been restricted in recent years, but a few companies are permitted to escort tours to the bay. Overland access is difficult, so opt for one of the guided snorkel cruises permitted to moor here. Napoopoo, at end of Beach Rd. and Hwy. 160, Kailua-Kona www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii/index.cfm?park_id=46.
Magic Sands Beach Park. Also known as White Sands or Disappearing Sands Beach Park, this is a great place for beginning and intermediate snorkelers. In winter, it's also a prime spot to watch for whales. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Puuhonua O Honaunau. There is no swimming inside the national historical park here, but just to the north is a boat launch where the snorkeling is almost as good as at Kealakekua Bay. Parking is very limited. Be respectful of local fishermen who use the area. Hwy. 160, 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona.
Body Glove Cruises. This operator is a good choice for families; kids love the waterslide and the high-dive platform, and parents appreciate the reasonable prices and good food. The 65-foot catamaran sets off for Red Hill from Kailua-Kona pier daily for a morning snorkel cruise that includes breakfast and a lunch buffet. A three-hour dinner cruise to Kealakekua Bay is a great way to relax, watch the sunset, and learn about Kona's history. It includes a buffet and live music. Seasonal whale-watch cruises are available, too. 75-5629 Kuakini Hwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/326–7122 or 800/551–8911. www.bodyglovehawaii.com. Snorkeling $128; dinner cruise $108; whale-watch cruises $88.
Captain Zodiac Raft Expedition. A four-hour trip on a rigid-hull inflatable Zodiac raft takes you along the Kona Coast to explore gaping lava-tube caves, search for dolphins and turtles, and snorkel around Kealakekua Bay. Captains entertain you with Hawaiian folklore and Kona history. Trips depart at 8:15 am, 10 am, and 1 pm. A seasonal three-hour whale-watching cruise is offered. All equipment, such as Rx masks and flotation devices, are included. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy. #16, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–3199. www.captainzodiac.com. From $99 per person; whale-watching cruise $74.
Fair Wind Cruises. In business since 1971, Fair Wind offers morning and afternoon snorkel trips that are great for families with small kids. The custom-built 60-foot catamaran has two 15-foot waterslides, freshwater showers, and a staircase descending directly into the water for easy access. Snorkel gear is included, with lots of pint-size flotation equipment and prescription masks available. The company is known for its delicious meals. Cruises last 4½ hours; 3½-hour snack cruises are offered, too. For ages seven and older, the company operates the Hula Kai snorkel cruise, a 55-foot luxury hydrofoil catamaran with theater-style seats for panoramic views. Their five-hour morning snorkel cruise includes a gourmet breakfast buffet and barbecue lunch. Keauhou Bay, 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/322–2788 or 800/677–9461. www.fair-wind.com. Cruises from $75.
Snorkel Bob's. You're likely to see Snorkel Bob's wacky ads in your airline in-flight magazine. The company is known for a wide selection of rental gear and can set you up with adventures such as cruises, helicopter flights, and ziplines. 75-5831 Kahakai St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–0770 or 800/262–7725. www.snorkelbob.com.
Snuba—a cross between scuba and snorkeling—is a great choice for non-scuba divers who want to go a step beyond snorkeling. You and an instructor dive off a raft attached to a 25-foot hose and regulator, allowing a dive as deep as 20 feet or so. This is a good way to explore reefs a bit deeper than you can get to by snorkeling. If you need a break, the raft is ready to support you.
Snuba Big Island. Meet your instructor at the beach rental area near the pool at the Courtyard King Kamehameha for a shallow-water dive experience without the hassle of scuba certification. Courses include a 30-minute class and a one-hour dive from the beach and three-hour boat dives that leave from Honakahou Harbor. Kids ages four to seven can come along on the Snuba Doo program, which keeps them doing snuba safely on the surface. The company also runs the 40-foot Kaha Nuola scuba boat, which accommodates all levels for a two-tank dive, not including gear. Courtyard King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, 75-5660 Palani Rd., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/324–1650. www.snubabigisland.com. Classes from $89; dives from $135.
Stand-up paddling (or SUP for short), a sport with roots in the Hawaiian Islands, has grown popular worldwide in recent years. It's available for all skill levels and ages, and even novice stand-up paddleboarders can get up, stay up, and have a great time paddling around a protected bay or exploring the gorgeous coastline. All you need is a large body of water, a board, and a paddle. The workout tests your core strength as well as your balance, and offers an unusual vantage point from which to enjoy the beauty of island and ocean.
Anaehoomalu Bay Beach (A-Bay. In this well-protected bay, even when surf is rough on the rest of the island, it's usually fairly calm here, though trades pick up in the afternoon. Boards are available for rent at the north end, and the safe area for stand-up paddling is marked by buoys. Off Waikoloa Beach Dr., south of Waikoloa Beach Marriott, Kohala Coast.
Hilo Bay. At this favorite among locals, the best place to put in is at Reeds Bay Beach Park. Most afternoons you'll share the bay with local paddling clubs. Stay inside the breakwater unless the ocean is calm (or you're feeling unusually adventurous). Conditions range from extremely calm to quite choppy. Banyan Way and Banyan Dr., 1 mile from downtown Hilo.
Kailua Bay and Kamakahonu Beach. The small, sandy beach that fronts the Courtyard King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel is great for kids; the water here is especially calm and gentle. If you're more daring, you can easily paddle out of the bay and along the coast for some great exploring. Alii Dr., next to Kailua Pier, Kailua-Kona.
Ocean Sports. This outfitter rents equipment, offers lessons, and has the perfect location for easy access to the bay. Ocean Sports also operates rental shacks at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Whale Center Kawaihae, and Queens' MarketPlace. Waikoloa Beach Marriott, 69-275 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Waikoloa, HI, 96738. 808/886–6666. www.hawaiioceansports.com. Stand-up paddleboard rentals $30 per hour.
Sun and Sea Hawaii. This full-serve ocean sports shop rents 11-foot inflatable stand-up paddleboards for four hours and for a full day. Snorkel, scuba, surfing, and kayaking equipment is also available for sale or rent. Hilo Bay front, 244 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/934–0902. From $45.
Atlantis Submarines. Want to stay dry while exploring the undersea world? Climb aboard the 48-passenger Atlantis X submarine, anchored off Kailua Pier, across from Courtyard King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel. A large glass dome in the bow and 13 viewing ports on each side allow clear views of the aquatic world more than 100 feet down. This is a great trip for kids and nonswimmers. A $10 discount is available if you book online. 75-5669 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/326–7939 or 800/381–0237. www.atlantisadventures.com. $109.
The Big Island does not have the variety of great surfing spots found on Oahu or Maui, but it does have decent waves and a thriving surf culture. Local kids and avid surfers frequent a number of places up and down the Kona and Kohala coasts of West Hawaii. Expect high surf in winter and much calmer activity during summer. The surf scene is much more active on the Kona side.
Honolii Cove. North of Hilo, this is the best surfing spot on the eastern side of the island. It hosts many exciting surf contests. Off Hwy. 19, near mile marker 4, Hilo.
Kahaluu Beach Park. Slightly north of this beach park and just past the calm lagoon filled with snorkelers, beginning and intermediate surfers can have a go at some nice waves. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Old Kona Airport Park. This park is a good place for catching wave action. A couple of the island's outfitters conduct surf lessons here, as the break is far away from potentially dangerous rocks and reefs. Kuakini Rd., Kailua-Kona.
Pine Trees. Also known as Kohanaiki, this community beach park is among the best places to catch waves. Keep in mind that it's a very popular local surf spot on an island where there aren't all that many surf spots, so be respectful. Off Hwy. 11, Kohanaiki entrance gate, about 2 miles south of Kona airport, Kailua-Kona.
Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors. This family-owned, lifeguard-certified school helps novices become wave riders and offers tours that take more experienced riders to Kona's top surf spots. A 1½-hour introductory lesson has one instructor per three students. Private instruction is available as well. If the waves are on the smaller side, they convert to stand-up paddleboard lessons for the same prices as surfing. 75-5909 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/324–0442 or 808/936–7873. www.surflessonshawaii.com. $75 per person (group), $110 (private).
Ocean Eco Tours Surf School. Family owned and operated, Kona's oldest surf school emphasizes the basics and specializes in beginners. It's one of a handful of operators permitted to conduct business in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, which gets waves even when other spots on the island are flat. All lessons are taught by certified instructors, and the school guarantees that you will surf. If you're hooked, sign up for a three-day package. There's an authentic soul surfer's vibe to these folks, and they are equally diehard about teaching you about the ocean and having you standing up riding waves on your first day. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/324–7873. www.oceanecotours.com. From $95 per person; $270 for three-day package.
Orchid Land Surf Shop. The shop has a wide variety of water sports and surf equipment for sale or rent. It stocks custom surfboards, body boards, and surf apparel. The staff also handles repairs. 262 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/935–1533. www.orchidlandsurf.com.
Each winter, some two-thirds of the North Pacific humpback whale population (about 4,000–5,000 animals) migrate over 3,500 miles from the icy Alaska waters to the warm Hawaiian ocean to mate and, the following year, give birth to and nurse their calves. Recent reports indicate that the whale population is on the upswing—a few years ago one even ventured into the mouth of Hilo Harbor, which marine biologists say is quite rare. Humpbacks are spotted here from early December through the end of April, but other species, like sperm, pilot, and beaked whales as well as spinner, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins, can be seen year-round. If you take a morning cruise, you're more likely to see dolphins.